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A PORTRAIT OF THE FULLY ALIVE HUMAN BEING

John Powell, SJ

BY WAY OF A GENERAL DESCRIPTION, fully alive people are those who


are using all their human faculties, powers, and talents. They are using them to
the full. These individuals are fully functioning in their external and internal
senses. They are comfortable with and open to the full experience and expression
of all human emotions. Such people are vibrantly alive in mind, heart, and will.
There is an instinctive fear in most of us, I think, to travel with our engines at full
throttle. We prefer, for the sake of safety, to take life in small dainty doses. The
fully alive person travels with the confidence that, if one is alive and fully
functioning in all parts and powers, the result will be harmony, not chaos.
Fully alive human beings are alive in their external and internal senses.
They see a beautiful world. They hear its music and poetry. They smell the
fragrance of each new day and taste the deliciousness of every moment.
Of
course their senses are also insulted by ugliness and offended by odors. To be
fully alive means to be open to the whole human experience. It is a struggle to
climb a mountain, but the view from the top is magnificent.
Fully alive
individuals have activated imaginations and cultivated senses of humor. They
are alive, too, in their emotions. They are able to experience the full gamut and
galaxy of human feelings -- wonder, awe, tenderness, compassion, both agony
and ecstasy.
Fully alive people are also alive in their minds. They are very much aware
of the wisdom in the statement of Socrates that "the unreflected life isn't worth
living." Fully alive people are always thoughtful and reflective. They are capable
of asking the right questions of life and flexible enough to let life question them.
They will not live an unreflected life in an unexamined world.
Most of all,
perhaps, these people are alive in will and heart. They love much. They truly
love and sincerely respect themselves. All love begins here and builds on this.
In a delicate and sensitive way they also love others. Their general disposition
towards all is one of concern and love. And there are individuals in their lives
who are so dear to them that the happiness, success, and security of these loved
ones are as real to them as their own. They are committed and faithful to those
they love in this special way.
For such people life has the color of joy and the sound of celebration.
Their lives are not a perennial funeral procession. Each tomorrow is a new
opportunity which is eagerly anticipated. There is a reason to live and a reason to
die. And when such people come to die their hearts will be filled with gratitude
for all that has been, for "the way we were," for a beautiful and full experience.
A smile will spread throughout their whole being as their lives pass in review.
And the world will always be a better place, a happier place, and a more human
place because they lived and laughed and loved here.

The fullness of life must not be misrepresented as the proverbial "bowl of


cherries." Fully alive people, precisely because they are fully alive, obviously
experience failure as well as success. They are open to both pain and pleasure.
They have many questions and some answers. They cry and they laugh. They
dream and they hope. The only thing that remain alien to their experience of life
are passivity and apathy. They say a strong "yes" to life and a resounding "amen"
to love. They feel the strong stings of growing -- of going from the old into the
new --but their sleeves are always rolled up, their minds are whirring, and their
hearts are ablaze.
They are always moving, growing, beings-in-process,
creatures of continual evolution.
How does one get this way? How do we learn to join the dance and sing
the songs of life in all its fullness? It seems to me that the contemporary wisdom
on this subject can be distilled and formulated into five essential steps to fuller
living. These are normally taken in the order suggested, and each one builds
upon the previous accomplishments. As will be obvious from the description of
the steps, none is ever fully and finally completed. Each will always remain an
ideal to keep us reaching. In terms of a vision, or basic frame of reference, each
of the five steps is essentially a new awareness or perception. The more deeply
these perceptions are realized, the more one is enabled to find the fullness of life.
Briefly, and before discussing each, the five essential steps into the fullness
of life are these:
(1) to accept oneself
(2) to be oneself
(3) to forget oneself in loving
(4) to believe
(5) to belong.
Obviously all growth begins with a joyful self-acceptance. Otherwise one
is perpetually locked into an interior, painful, and endless civil war. However,
the more we approve and accept ourselves, the more we are liberated from doubt
about whether others will approve of and accept us.
We are freed to be
ourselves with confidence. But whether we are authentic or not, loving and
living for oneself alone becomes a small and imprisoning world. We must learn
to go out of ourselves into genuine love relationships. Of course the genuineness
of these relationships will be directly dependent on the ability of a person to be
authentic, to be himself. Having been led out of self by love, one must then find
a faith. Everyone must learn to believe in someone or something so deeply that
life is charged with meaning and a sense of mission. And the more one dedicates
oneself to this meaning and mission, the more such a person will develop a sense
of profound and personal belonging and discover the reality of community. Let
us now look at each of these steps more closely.
(1) To Accept Oneself. Fully alive people accept and love themselves as
they are. They do not live for the promise of some tomorrow or the potential that
may someday be revealed in them. They usually feel about themselves as they are
the same warm and glad emotions that you and I feel when we meet someone
whom we really like and admire. Fully alive people are sensitively aware of all
that is good in themselves, from the little things, like the way they smile or walk,

through the natural talents they have been given, to the virtues they have worked
to cultivate. When
these people find imperfections and limitations in
themselves they are compassionate. They try to understand, not to condemn
themselves. "Beyond a wholesome discipline," DESIDERATA says, "be gentle
with yourself." The well-springs for the fullness of life rise from within a person.
And, psychologically speaking, a joyful self-acceptance, a good self-image, and a
sense of self-celebration are the bedrock beginning of the fountain that rises up
into the fullness of life.
(2) To Be Oneself. Fully alive people are liberated by their selfacceptance to be authentic and real. Only people who have joyfully accepted
themselves can take all the risks and responsibilities of being themselves. "I gotta
be me!" the song lyrics insist, but most of us get seduced into wearing masks and
playing games. The old ego defense mechanisms are built up to protect us from
further vulnerability. But they buffer us from reality and reduce our visibility.
They diminish our capacity for living. Being ourselves has many implications. It
means that we are free to have and to report our emotions, ideas, and
preferences. Authentic individuals can think their own thoughts, make their
own choices. They have risen above the nagging need for the approval of others.
They do not sell out to anyone. Their feelings, thoughts, and choices are simply
not for hire. "To thine own self be true " is their life-principle and life-style.
(3) To Forget Oneself in Loving. Having learned to accept and to be
themselves, fully alive people proceed to master the art of
forgetting
themselves--the art of loving. They learn to go out of themselves in genuine
caring and concern for others. The size of a person's world is the size of his or her
heart. We can be at home in the world of reality only to the extent that we have
learned to love it.
Fully alive men and women escape from the dark and
diminished world of egocentricity, which always has a population of one. They
are filled with an empathy that enables them to feel deeply and spontaneously
with others. Because they can enter into the feeling world of others -- almost as
if they were inside others or others were inside them -- their world is greatly
enlarged and their potential for human experience greatly enhanced. They have
become "persons for others," and there are others so dear to them that they have
personally experienced the "greater love than this" sense of commitment. They
would protect their loved ones with their own lives.
Being a loving person is far different from being a so-called "do-gooder."
Do-gooders merely use other people as opportunities for practicing their acts of
virtue, of which they keep careful count. People who love learn to move the focus
of their attention and concern from themselves out to others. They care deeply
about others. The difference between do-gooders and people who love is the
difference between a life which is an on-stage performance and a life which is an
act of love. Real love cannot be successfully imitated. Our care and concern for
others must be genuine, or our love means nothing. This much is certain: There
is no learning to live without learning to love.
(4) To Believe. Having learned to transcend purely self-directed
concern, fully alive people discover "meaning" in their lives. This meaning is
found in what Victor Frankl calls "a specific vocation or mission in life." It is a

matter of commitment to a person or a cause in which one can believe and to


which one can be dedicated. This faith commitment shapes the lives of fully
alive individuals, making all of their efforts seem significant and worthwhile.
Devotion to this life task raises them above pettiness and paltriness that
necessarily devour meaningless lives. When there is no such meaning in a
human life, one is left almost entirely to the pursuit of sensations. One can only
experiment, looking for new "kicks," new ways to break the monotony and
boredom of a stagnant life. A person without meaning usually gets lost in the
forest of chemically induced delusions, the alcoholic fog, the prolonged itch.
Human nature abhors a vacuum. We must find a cause to believe in or spend
the rest of our lives compensating ourselves for failure.
(5) To Belong. The fifth and final component of the full life would no
doubt be a "place called home," a sense of community. A community is a union
of persons who "have in common," who share in mutuality their most precious
possessions--themselves. They know and are open to one another. They are
"for" one another. They share in love their persons and their lives. Fully alive
people have such a sense of belonging --- to their families, to their church, to the
human family.
There are others with whom such people feel completely
comfortable and at home, with whom they experience a sense of mutual
belonging. There is a place where their absence would be felt and their deaths
mourned.
When they are with those others, fully alive people find equal
satisfaction in giving and receiving. A contrary sense of isolation is always
diminishing and destructive.
It drives us into the pits of loneliness and
alienation, where we can only perish. The inescapable law built into human
nature is this
: We are never less than individuals but we are never merely
individuals. No man is an island. Butterflies are free, but we need the heart of
another as a home for our hearts. Fully alive people have the deep peace and
contentment that can be experienced only in such a home.
So this is the profile, the portrait of fully alive men and women. Having
succeeded in taking the five steps just discussed, their question as they address
themselves to life is: How can I most fully experience, enjoy, and profit from this
day, this person, this challenge? People like these stand eagerly on the growing
edge of life. In general they will be constructive rather than destructive in their
words and actions. They will be flexible rather than rigid in their attitudes. They
will be capable of constant and satisfying relationships. They will be relatively
free from the physical and psychological symptoms produced by stress They will
perform well, in reasonable proportion to their talents. They will prove adaptable
and confident when change is thrust upon them or when they have to make a
decision that will change the course of their lives. We would all want to be like
these people, and all of us can be more like them. In the last analysis, it is a
question of vision. It is our perceptions that make us fragmented or whole.
Health is basically an inner attitude, a life-giving vision. BON VOYAGE!
22nd Ateneo Senior Summer Program
April 10-May 24, 2014
AdZU College Admissions & Aid Office

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